By Ayesha Siddiqa
May 7, 2015
I have lately found a way to turn Pakistanis patriotic, i.e., those who fail to show any evidence of emotions regarding their own country. The recipe is to pack such people off to the Arab world. It is the one region where an upper-middle class or even an upper class Pakistani would at some point in time thank his lucky stars for having a possibility to escape. I have never felt so terribly impatient to board a flight back to Pakistan as I did at airports in Saudi Arabia.
I just had the opportunity to attend a conference on ‘Conflict and Change’ in one of the smaller Gulf states. Hearing Arabs speak, behave, gang up against ideological adversaries and socialise in general was a reminder of how tribal these societies are despite all the infrastructural development. Every Gulf state aspires to make its own Dubai — full of shopping malls, opulence, capital and glamour minus any intellectual or social development. Every visit to one of the Arab states is also a reminder of the deep love affair between the Arab elite and the West. Despite this, there were people in the audience who were quick to suggest that the Arab spring of 2011 was perhaps, an American conspiracy. The obsession with anything American, or in general Western, is pronounced. On my flight to the Gulf, I had a chance to talk to a British doctor who spoke about her experience of visiting Saudi Arabia. Discussing the place, it almost seemed that we were talking about two different countries. She could visit the place with five men, none of whom were her mahrams, something that I and many other Muslim women cannot do while travelling to and from the country. There is little in terms of a South-South cooperation in these states as far as intellectual exchange is concerned. A Western passport can guarantee a good job quicker than if you were just a desi. Similarly, holding a Western driver’s licence guarantees one the permission to drive, something which is not given to those from developing Muslim countries holding international driver’s licences. Interestingly, such documents get honoured in Western countries but not in Arab states.
Perhaps, my sense of shock seems strange to those who do business with the Arab world. For me, it was an amazing intellectual experience to see modernity only getting reflected in appearances rather than in substance. For instance, a lot of women were dressed in Western clothes (unlike in Pakistan), shook hands with men and were physically more comfortable. However, gender sensitivity didn’t stretch beyond that. In the conference, women were gently ignored and had probably been invited to ensure equal gender representation more than anything else.
The most interesting issue, nevertheless, was the limited sense of history that the speakers seemed to possess. Speaker after speaker talked about the Arab Spring — the domestic conflict in the Middle East that started with Tunisia in 2011 and spread to several countries — as an ultimate milestone. It was presented as a game-changer, when this was not really the case. People did not even want to engage with the fact that the Arab Spring brought a change in faces and regimes, but not in regime type. There were several reasons for this but a couple that I think are critical includes the weakness of the civil society and its lack of capacity to launch a sustained onslaught against powerful systems. In any case, a strong state has greater capacity to divide civil society as has happened in the case of Egypt where the liberal-right wing divide means sustained military rule. Many Egyptians and their sympathisers outside believe the state was saved from a religious onslaught, totally forgetting that the military not only has the knack of partnering with both liberals and those on the right wing, but also has the ability to encourage a contest between the two ideological ends. We in Pakistan have sufficient experience of this. Furthermore, there are no external pressures on authoritarian state systems in the Arab world to ensure change. Many would love to cite Turkey’s example and consider Erdogan as an epitome of political wisdom. They forget that had it not been for the strategic external pressure from the European Union, the Turkish military might have reacted to Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies the same way General Sisi reacted to Mohamed Morsi’s.
It almost seemed as if the Arab participants to the event had no memory of the extensive conflict that the Middle East has been through before 2011. The conflict centered around the Palestinian issue or the transformation of society after the 1980s is something that no one wanted to talk about. There were references to the West demonising Islam or the Arab world without participants recalling that their states had willingly partnered with the West to support and partly bankroll the American project to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The encouragement of Jihadi ideology that was spoken of with reference to reinterpretation of religious text and state support to individuals to fight in other lands eventually did bring the conflict back home. One wonders if these states, which also have sufficient oil and gas funds, would re-examine the intellectual capital developed during those days that fuels many ideological fires today.
This reinterpretation had another impact. It gave people an opportunity to reexamine their power structures. Sure we dislike al Qaeda or similar organisations but the fact is that these brought to surface the hidden tensions in these societies regarding the distribution of resources and power. It made rabid elements bigger partners of the ruling elite but also empowered less powerful groups to regroup along ideological lines in the pursuit of more rights. Some of this friction went into creating the movement denoted by the Arab Spring.
Sadly, even with all the money, the Arab world has failed to construct an internal sociological shift. Some of the oil-rich states have diminished resources. Their further depletion will be a game-changer for the region. It is at the time of a future economic crisis that political chaos will be generated in a directionless society that has failed to sufficiently train and educate its youth. The region may then turn towards some powerful patron or delve into further instability. It is just that no one seems to talk about this and find a way out while they still can.
Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter